Wednesday, 23 March 2016

The Story of Rongo

In the garden of Walt Disney's Enchanted Tiki Room, Rongo is portrayed as a playful god with a bounty of tropical fruits and a penchant for flying kites. The real story behind this deity is a little more complex and disturbing than the made-up riff on how he could have discovered electricity if only he had a key lying around.

Photo: University of Wellington.

To the Maori, Rongo is the god of Cultivated Food and one of Tangaroa's brothers. You may recall from our previous article on Tangaroa that the boys felt cramped in their home between their father Rangi (the Sky) and their mother Papa (the Earth), who held each other in a tight embrace. Rongo was the first to make the attempt to pry them apart, but he failed. Then Tangaroa (the Sea) and Haumia-tiketike (god of Wild or Uncultivated Food) combined forces but still did not succeed. Then Tāne (the Forest and god of birds) tried with his powerful legs and succeeded. Rangi and Papa were forever pushed apart.

Each of the brothers begat children and grandchildren of their own. Tāne gave rise to birds, and Tangaroa gave rise to fish and reptiles. Rongo and Haumia-tiketike bore food plants after their kind, cultivated and uncultivated. Tūmatauenga became the god of War, and his children were human beings. In some stories it is Tāne who gave humankind nets and canoes, and in other stories it is Tūmatauenga himself. Either way, humans have snares to capture the children of Tāne, nets to capture the children of Tangaroa, and hoes and other farming implements to unearth the children of Rongo and Haumia-tiketike. The only god who cannot be subdued by humans is Tāwhirimātea, the Wind and Storm.

One of the most important manifestations of Rongo, or his children, is "kūmara" or sweet potato. Brought from Polynesia by the first Maori settlers, traditional strains of kūmara were small, finger-sized, and only grew well on the most northerly parts of the North Island of New Zealand. Cooking kumara typically involved using a hāngi. This type of earth oven required the excavation of pit into which was placed heated stones, and then baskets or leaf-wrapped food placed on top of the stones, and then everything was buried in dirt for several hours. This traditional style of cooking is still found today in tourism services and gatherings at sacred sites called "marae." Whereas the marae of other Polynesian cultures fell into disuse and disrepair with the arrival of European colonizers and Christianity, these cleared public squares still serve an important function in the life of Maori today. Kūmara has not necessarily fared as well: arriving Europeans also brought their own varieties of sweet potatoes that could grow in more versatile conditions. Nevertheless, kumara are still cultivated and available throughout New Zealand. Other foods produced by Rongo include yams, taro, gourds, and cordyline. Usually respected as an ornamental plant, the rhizome of cordyline can be cooked in a hāngi to extract its sugars.

A kumara. Photo: Donovan Govan.
A modern hāngi dinner ready to be cooked.
Photo: Sarah M. Stewart.
Cordyline. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Growing kumara was a major undertaking befitting the prime importance the crop had in Maori survival. The following excerpt from a 1962 issue of The Maori Magazine explains some of the process:
The field where the kumaras were to grow had to be made tapu; as part of this ceremony, and usually before the kumaras were planted, long poles were brought and placed upright around the field. These poles represented the gods connected with the cultivation of the kumara—gods such as Rongo, Maui, Kahukura and Marihaka. Sometimes the people put the dried heads of famous ancestors upon the tops of these poles, and sometimes they brought other bones of their ancestors also, painted with red ochre and ornamented with feathers. These were put to watch over the fields so that their mana might ensure food for their descendants. 
Sometimes stone statues, such as the one which we illustrate, were also brought to guard the fields. These seem usually to have represented Rongo, the chief of the gods associated with agriculture, but some statues had other names. Mokoia Island in Lake Rotorua, for instance, was a very tapu island, largely because of the presence of the ancient statue called Matuatonga, which is still there today. Kumaras grew very well on Mokoia, and this was attributed to the great powers of Matuatonga. Because of this, each year before the planting began the tohungas from the surrounding districts would bring their seed-kumara to the island so that they could touch the figure of Matuatonga, thereby gaining its mana.

The day on which the field was planted was very sacred. The planters arrived at the field before sunrise, and the tohunga chanted a prayer to Rongo, while they all faced towards the rising sun. Then the priest took a sacred basket of kumara and planted them, with ritual gestures, in a specially tapu part of the field. After this the men planted the rest of the field. When the work was over they ate a ceremonial meal of kumara from two sacred ovens; this was part of the ritual of removing the tapu which rested upon them during the planting. 
While the plants were growing it was forbidden for strangers to approach them; if, in travelling across the country, you accidentally stumbled across the other tribe's kumara plantations, you were very likely to be attacked. During the summer the only people allowed near the kumara were the workman who did the weeding. 
When the stars showed that the time had come to harvest the kumara, there were once again elaborate ceremonies performed by the tohunga, and once again the men working the fields (no women were allowed) were in a tapu condition. After all crop was lifted, and after ceremonial offerings of kumara had been made to the gods and all the necessary rituals were performed, it was the time of year for going visiting: a time when neighbouring friendly tribes entertained each other with elaborate feasts, when kumara and fish were displayed in great piles on tall platforms, and there were speeches, games, dancing, singing and festivity.
The term "tapu" represents something sacred or holy and therefore restricted in access. When James Cook visited Tonga in 1777, his crew picked up the term, altered its meaning a bit, and created the word "taboo." In Western culture, "taboo" implies something particularly obscene or unclean and therefore not to be touched, done, or talked about, which is the opposite of its meaning in Maori culture. Rather, tapu places or things were so sacred that they were not to be touched, done, or talked about. This was very handy for helping to preserve fisheries and other resources from overexploitation, when they would be declared tapu for at least part of the year.

"Rongo" is also the word for "peace" in Maori language, which is a far cry from Rongo's identity in the Cook Islands. Among the people of Mangaia, the most southerly and second largest of the Cook Islands, Rongo is both the god of agriculture and of war. Limited land and resources on the island lead to the kind of competition that would link those two ideas together. The ferocity of the Mangaians repeatedly repelled European explorers who attempted to land on the island.

Shores of Mangaia. Photo: bugflickr.
It was Rongo's three sons who raised the island, settled it, and begat Mangaia's aboriginal peoples, who in turn named the island after Rongo: A'u A'u Nui o Rongo ki te Ao Marama, the Great Terraced Land of Rongo in the Land of Daylight. Taro is the staple food of Mangaia, and appeasing Rongo required the sacrifice of cooked taro root. Likewise, success in war required the sacrifice of human beings. Before getting offended, consider that this is a ritualized form of what war essentially is. One may think of it in a similar way to a tithe: if the gods grant a blessing, some of that blessing must be returned to the gods in thanks and to ensure future blessings.

Besides all of this, Rongo also introduced the sport of kite-flying. The story goes that one day, Tāne challenged Rongo to a round of kite-flying. Who could make their kite reach highest into the sky? Unbeknownst to Tāne, Rongo had supplied himself with a very, very long string. He won the contest, and ever since, tradition holds that the first kite that makes it into the sky in a contest is dedicated to Rongo. Returning to the thought that Rongo is a god of peace, to have kites flying outside a village is a Maori sign of peace.


  1. The main thing I always notice about the Tiki Room's version of Rongo is his horribly stilted accent. Hence I've started making the joke: "Me Rongo! Me Numbah One racist stereotype!"

    1. LoL, yep... As I will discuss in an article I'm writing on Tiki and cultural appropriation, the gods of the Tiki Room lanai are just over the line for me, from innocent cultural diffusion to denigrating another culture. Doing these articles is how I help absolve myself of white liberal guilt.

    2. Our fave is problematic...

    3. Meh... Everything is problematic apparently, even not being racist.